Play Fair, Run Fast, and Smile for the Camera

When I was living in Madrid, I read an article in El País one day that spoke of el valorado concepto anglosajón de “fair play” —the valued Anglo-Saxon concept of fair play. It never occurred to me that other people might think of fair play as an idea that had some worth but was essentially a foreign invention. The phrase has certainly spread far, and particularly during international soccer tournaments, it’s plastered upon every billboard in sight. But for an American used to watching American sports, few things can spark a lifelong aversion to soccer quite like the image of an Italian striker writhing in agony on the ground, clearly faking an injury to eat up time. Or in last summer’s World Cup, having to watch the Uruguayan player Luis Suarez gloat publicly after his blatant handball kept Ghana from a semifinal spot that it surely deserved.

What turns Americans off soccer isn’t just the players, though; it’s the nature of the game. There is an element of chance, fatalism—even tragedy—to it. In a low-scoring sport, the better team is not guaranteed to win. One moment of bad luck and the whole game can be over. Referees’ inexplicably bad calls are not subject to review. There are few ways to decide a sports game that are more cruel and indifferent than penalty kicks. Ninety minutes of crescendo and decrescendo and you have to hope that once, your team is in the right place at the right time with the right man behind the ball.

Soccer, in other words, is too much like real life. This doesn’t sit well with the “valued Anglo-Saxon concept of fair play,” by which athletes, in exchange for playing by the rules, respecting the game, and doing right by their opponents, are supposed to get a game ruled by reason and logic. If this sounds like the only way to play, it’s because the two sports closest to American hearts have closed us off to the possibility of anything else. Our sports aren’t like real life because we want them to be fair.

In the summer of 2010, Bob Sheppard and George Steinbrenner died within a month of each other. Sheppard had been the public-address announcer at Yankee Stadium for over 50 years, and Steinbrenner was the team’s pugnacious owner since the 1970s. Even as a Yankee fan growing up in the late 1990s, at the height of the team’s dynasty under Steinbrenner, I had mixed feelings about “the Boss.” My reservations mostly came from the notoriously terrible way he treated everyone under him, and when he died I couldn’t manage to feel much of anything. The loss of Sheppard was different. When his death came, only a year after the demolition of the original Yankee Stadium, I was aware that a small part of my childhood—and the childhood of many in the New York City area—had slipped away.

Sheppard, in both his personal demeanor and his work as the Yankees’ stadium announcer, was the very model of class and decorum. He helped civilize a stadium known for its stacked, claustrophobic tiers filled with hostile fans. Every child raised a Yankees fan could do Sheppard’s sonorous voice and his pristine manner of enunciating: “Now batt-ing…for the Yankeezh: Numbah two. Derr-ek…Chee-tah. Numbah two.” It wasn’t until 1996, two years after I started going to games, that I finally believed my father when he told me that the Yankees’ announcer wasn’t from England.

I have plenty of indelible visual memories that accompany Sheppard’s voice: the long white fence lining the outfield, with the 4 train just visible as it passed behind it, and the stadium’s grimy concrete interiors. I barely noticed the stadium’s state of disrepair at the time, just like I never realized that Yankee Stadium’s ability to awe came from its immense size and history, not its aesthetic charm. I knew enough about baseball history to understand what it meant when my grandfather wore his old Jackie Robinson No. 42 shirt to the stadium and got a thumbs-up from people we passed. There was some team from Boston that I knew I hated. But I was unaware that many people felt my team was ruining the national pastime. I have come to understand those complaints about the Yankees, and I try not to think about them too much, but then again, the new Yankee Stadium feels like a corporate headquarters, with all the charm and quirk that implies. It reflects poorly on Yankees fans that we didn’t chain ourselves to the old stadium walls when they tried to tear it down. There’s no question that Red Sox or Cubs fans would have done this if Fenway Park or Wrigley Field were suddenly threatened.

The excuse was that the Yankee Stadium ghosts would simply “move across the street,” but such things don’t happen on their own. Baseball history has to be cultivated and passed down from parents to children because the game quite simply isn’t exciting enough for it to stand on its own two feet. I mean this as a compliment. The sport has been described as the national religion, and like every other religion, its mythology and grandeur tower over facts. “I loved baseball ever since Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919,” the gangster Hyman Roth tells Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II—even though Rothstein never got caught in the act. Other moments, from Babe Ruth’s retirement—with the portly ballplayer slumped over in front of home plate receiving the cheers of the crowd—to Carlton Fisk waving his game-winning home run fair, to Bobby Thompson’s 1951 Shot Heard ‘Round the World, have become not only cultural touchstones but throwbacks to a supposedly simpler time.

And no time seems to be simpler, with a more definite sense of purpose, than the 1930s and 1940s. These decades marked baseball’s golden age. An increasingly polarized political climate has sometimes made me think that they also marked the last time Americans truly overcame collective hardship, made common sacrifices, and acted as one to make their country and world a better place. If such mythologizing seems silly, it’s worth remembering that the United States really did accomplish feats at home and abroad that, to my generation, now seem outside the realm of political possibility. We were an urban people then instead of a suburban one, and baseball is a product of America’s urban era. Its stadiums were built right in the middle of the country’s teeming cities, asymmetrical so that they could fit snugly in the street grids. Not for a moment would the Brooklyn Dodgers have considered abandoning Ebbetts Field and moving to Nassau County or Hackensack. Nor, I imagine, would the late Washington Senators have ever dreamed of leaving the District for the suburban comforts of Landover, Maryland.

And yet this is exactly what the Washington Redskins, D.C.’s football team and, in local culture, its only relevant sports franchise, did. The team abandoned Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, down the street from the Capitol, for a stadium named for a shipping corporation and located outside the city for which the team is named. Local lore holds that the Redskins’ current spell of mediocrity, which has lasted more than a decade, is divine retribution for moving out to FedEx Field. But there are 5 million people in the D.C. metro area, and only 600,000 in the city itself. One can hardly blame the team for going where the people (and the money) are. After all, if baseball represents our urban past, football stadiums, with their cookie-cutter design and parking lots as far as the eye can see, are the very image of our suburban present.

Baseball is certainly a sport that suffers on television, since each game consists of a number of discrete movements instead of a constant barrage of motion. It’s also one of the few sports in which the offense doesn’t drive toward a goal en masse but instead faces the defense as an ordered procession of single players coming up one by one. Three hours of hurry-up-and-wait is supposed to be the “national sport” for a country that is known for being constantly on the move. Is it really so surprising that football has leapfrogged baseball in the past few decades and is now, without dispute, the most popular sport in the country?

The Mad Men of the 21st century have tried unceasingly to convince us that everything is better on a screen. Baseball stands obstinately in their way. It is a source of deep comfort to know that there are still things that can be truly experienced only in person. As far as performances go, baseball games are inexpensive and happen virtually every day for six months. But they must be experienced in the flesh, outdoors, with thousands of fellow spectators. For me, it’s not the real thing unless I have a potato knish with mustard in hand and am sitting under the blazing sun, surrounded by a sea of navy blue.

The electronic noise associated with baseball is the crackle of a radio—a medium that seems almost quaint now, but whose lack of a visual component thankfully leaves a great deal to the imagination. Listening to games on the radio is another ritual that baseball fans have preserved. In an age of e-reading and text-messaging, this fact makes the sport seem at once a relic of the past and a tradition worth keeping.

The whole premise of televised football is exactly the opposite. The broadcasts presuppose that spectators can learn more about the game and have a better time watching it from within their own homes. If baseball represents American ideals at their best, then football culture shows how those ideals have turned sour: A game for an obese, complacent country more enamored of sitting and watching than standing and cheering. Unlike baseball, the game is built on forward motion, and yet the action is somehow intermittent enough to allow for a barrage of commercials and pauses. A game with one hour of playing time turns into a three-hour television spectacle.

This not at all a coincidence: The game often credited with beginning football’s surge in popularity, the 1958 NFL Championship, decided in a sudden-death overtime, had the good fortune of being broadcast on national television. As television, fairly novel in 1958, became an integral part of American life over the next few decades, football kept eating into baseball’s popularity. Football asks less of a time commitment—a shorter season; games once a week instead of every day—and requires little of its viewers’ attention spans. Nowadays, viewers are also asked to fix their attention on smoke machines and fireworks displays, giant inflatable helmets whose mouths teams emerge from, halftime shows featuring washed-up singers, and championship trophies and MVP awards named after brands of soda.

Football fans often describe the sport as being “like a ballet” in the way its players execute intricate, demanding movements. It’s a nice sentiment, but wholly untrue. The gliding paths of hockey players and delicate footwork of soccer players are far more artful than the collision-filled drives of football players, who ultimately dedicate themselves to a show of brute force before a hungry audience. Other football fans prefer to compare the game to a match of gladiators in an arena. This is a more apt metaphor, but when I hear the game described this way, I think less of heroic feats of strength and more of bread and circuses.

Without question, football players themselves are among the most impressive athletes in any sport. But just as the endless spectacle and sensory overload of televised football turn the game itself into an afterthought, the strutting, preening, and chest-thumping that follow a touchdown or even a tackle take the focus off the play and put it on the athlete. To go with personality-driven news and personality-driven politics, we now have personality-driven sports. It would be hard to find a clearer picture of a culture of entitlement and narcissism. Suddenly, people expect praise for merely doing what they’re supposed to do and conceive success and failure only in terms of the individual.

If all this about losing perspective and sanctioning selfish behavior sounds familiar, it’s because we have been inundated with complaints about parents who have turned this into a way of life—a culture in which they and their children deserve rewards not for doing something special, but simply for being (or thinking they are) special. The infamous case of trophies “for participation” is an example that we can laugh at easily, because it’s silly and fairly harmless. But other examples are more grotesque: the bourgeois liberal parents from Park Slope who want to make sure their toddler gets into the “right” kindergarten; bar and bat mitzvah celebrations that would make Nero blush; the prosperity gospel that can at once enforce public morality and allow the faithful to drive gas-guzzling SUVs. Any perspective—any sense of basic humility—is long gone.

These behaviors are rooted in a fundamentally suburban ethos that for half a century has made us more atomized and more willing to ignore how our choices affect other people. For all its faults, urban life at its best has a way of making inhabitants acutely aware that the world goes on without them and is largely indifferent to them. It brings about a sort of empathy among city dwellers, the kind of grudging camaraderie that living in close quarters demands. Suburbia, in contrast, more easily fosters false notions of self-sufficiency. Chalk it up to zoning laws, the rise of a car culture, the advent of the supermarket and processed food, or whatever else. But people who believe themselves unbound from inconvenience and who think they can have everything all the time are ignoring history.

Baseball is not for these suburban dwellers. It’s emphatically an urban sport for a public sphere. The game’s heightened sense of its own history is well suited to urban living, where people are surrounded by history at every turn and have no illusions about their ability to escape its grasp. Nor does baseball cater to spectators by beaming itself into their homes for a custom-made viewing experience. In order to get the full experience of the sport, we have to come out of our homes and enter the public eye with thousands of others—an inconvenience in the 21st century, to be sure, but one that strengthens social bonds in a way football never can.

Perhaps it’s these very limitations that help to make the sport a bit more decorous. There is a quiet sense of order and equity to the proceedings: Every batter gets his chance to face the pitcher. Each team has to record 27 outs for a game to end; there is no running out the clock. Even the visuals of the sport suggest order, harmony, and fairness. The players appear as tiny stick figures, evenly spaced out along a wide expanse of grass. Players make the shape of a perfect diamond in order to score. The game does what it can to bring order and beauty to a chaotic world. It just demands of its spectators that for a few hours, they leave their houses, sharpen their concentration, and put in a little bit of effort too.

Randolph Bourne, speaking of the Anglo-Saxon “sporting attitude” that had influenced the Middle American view of life, wrote, “The sporting attitude is a grateful and easy one. Issues are decided cleanly. No irritating fringes are left over. The game is won or lost. Analysis and speculation seem superfluous.” The question is whether we should bend our view of life to match the sporting attitude, or bend our view of sports so that they better reflect the irrational and messy realities of life.

In soccer, a team that possesses the ball 30 percent of the time can still win 1-0 with a lucky goal. A game so reliant on the whims of blind chance will probably never gain the mass American audience that it wants. Baseball and football, on the other hand, both conform to the “valued Anglo-Saxon concept of ‘fair play’” that I read about in Spanish newspapers. They are methodical, precise, and fairly predictable. There are chances to thwart or outsmart your opponents, but more often than not a game produces an eventual sense of satisfaction because the better team won.

This sort of poetic, logical justice is not just false comfort. Soccer’s tragedy and beauty are indeed moving, but it is also important to create a space for the sense of precision, order, and fair play that is often lacking in day-to-day life. If baseball and football seem like only-in-America phenomena, it’s because they reinforce long-held conceptions about Americans: that they are practical, empiricist, meritocratic. Football’s massive popularity fits into a less flattering narrative about the United States, one that sees the country as crude, aggressive, brutally competitive, and enamored of raw displays of blood and power. But for a nation reputed to be restless and constantly on the move, baseball is oddly decorous and subdued. For a people who often ignore the lessons of history and dream only of the future, our national sport is unusually attached to its past. Such niceties are gone in the TV-ready world of football, but no amount of pyrotechnics and cheerleaders can obscure the truth: Football is about driving to the end. In baseball, you just come home.